The Man Who Broke Time
The old lady – the kind you find on your aunt Mabel’s mantelpiece – watched Alan from the shelf of the curio shop. It was odd to have an old lady for such a bauble instead of the usual nubile shepherdess or ballerina; it was possibly why Alan took notice of it. It had a benevolent granny-look; a gleam of blue paint – all that was visible of her eyes in a nest of eerily realistic wrinkles, strands of grey hair peeking out from under the headscarf, the rough texture of fabric under his fingers, not at all like porcelain.
Alan put it back, but he made a clumsy job of it; he winced when he heard the crash.
“Damn!” He hurried to the front of the store. The owner was nowhere in sight. “Sir? Hello? I’m afraid there’s been a little accident.”
No reply came.
“I can pay for it, no problem.”
Nothing moved in the storage room behind the counter.
He glanced at the shop window and instantly forgot about the figurine. He stood in the door, eyes wide, breath rasping in his throat as he took in the view outside.
There were no cars or people, no birds perched on the wires. The clouds hung on the sky as if they’d been painted there.
The digital clocks in the neighbouring electric shop all showed the same time, 10:34, never switching to 35 while he watched, as if they all broke at the very same moment. The only sign of life were the signs used to advertise sales. They were still flashing on and off. One of them read:
CONGRATS! YOU BROKE TIME!
“Hey, is this a “You’ve Been Framed” episode? Ok, very funny; you can stop now.” Alan fell silent. He didn’t like the way his voice dropped at his feet like stones.
It was more of the same around the block; empty streets, desolate stores. He got back where he began; the curio shop. Alan winced a little when he heard the bells jingling above his head as he stepped in. He went around the counter, into the storage area. There was a small door at the other end of the room. He hoped to find the shop owner out there in a littered parking lot or back street, taking out the trash, perhaps.
He stopped abruptly when the smell reached his nose – the earthy, humid scent of vegetation, so out of place, so wrong in a storage room in the middle of a city that the little hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end.
Something drew him towards that door. He had to see what was behind it, despite the vehement protest of every nerve. The handle felt rough and cool under his palm. It stuck a little when he pushed it down.
He hadn’t noticed holding his breath as he opened the door; it escaped his lungs in a startled whoosh when he saw what was on the other side; not the littered parking lot he was hoping for.
Unknown birds flew among the towering trees of a primeval rainforest. Ferns of impossible size quivered from the passing of unseen animals. Something was off with the birds, but he wasn’t sure what it was.
Alan slammed the door shut and leaned against it hyperventilating, then slowly slid down to huddle at the base of the door in a shivering heap. “Those aren’t birds…” They were winged reptiles, giant pterodactyls.
He didn’t know how long he sat there hugging his knees, muttering, staring into the air; he lost track of time. He tried to remember if he had got wasted or high the previous day, but there was nothing. All he remembered of his life was impressions, dream-fragments, that didn’t really feel like they were his.
At some point he drifted into the store. There was no sign of the old lady; even the fragments were gone. In it’s place was a grinning clown figurine. Alan shuddered and turned away. The shop was just vaguely reminiscent of the one he entered in the morning of another life. All sorts of knickknacks lined the wooden shelves of what looked like a general store from an old western. There was a cuckoo clock in the corner. Its arms never moved past 1 o’clock, ticking forever in the same place.
Alan squinted, trying to see outside through the wavy glass in the paneled windows. He stumbled out to the street – or a version of it, as it must have looked like three or four centuries back. A dirt road ran between rows of plank houses. Men driving horse-drawn carts shot him curious glances from under the wide brim of their hats.
Alan went up to a cluster of women congregating nearby on the boardwalk. “Excuse me, I think I lost my way…”
They just watched him, whispering among themselves in some unknown language. He left them. It vaguely registered with him that children followed him from a safe distance.
“Parallel universes… dimensions… time lines…” He nearly tripped over a herd of pigs crowding the street. A part of him still wanted to believe that he was drunk or drugged or dreaming, and kept waiting to wake up.
An official-looking man stood in his way and asked something. He sounded friendly, but his watchful glance belied his tone. Alan stared at him, then shrugged and went around him. The other didn’t stop him, but his eyes followed Alan, as he ambled down the street.
They took him from the pastures outside the village. He didn’t fight when they locked him up in a cart and took him to the gaol. The next morning the same man who had stopped him on the street came to see him. He opened a leather bound book and read out something, the charges against him, Alan supposed. He glanced down at himself, at his modern clothes. The way you look, the way you acted out there they probably think you’re a witch. He looked back up at the man. He was still reading from the book. This is not happening. Not to me. None of this is real. Although the packed earth, the mud seeping up the seat of his pants and the rusty iron bars felt real enough.
The cell had a hole for a window, yet he couldn’t keep track of the days. Time had an oddly stretchy quality here. Alan tried counting time from tasteless porridge to tasteless porridge that the gaoler shoved in under the door.
They shook him awake and dragged him out of the cell in the predawn darkness. The last trace of sleep disappeared from his mind when he saw the gallows.
“I’m not a witch!” He tried to break away, but the guards held him firmly. “Not a witch, you idiots,” he howled.
The villagers shouted back at him, pelted him with rotten vegetables and occasionally stones. The guards had to carry him up the stairs, while he kept screaming and thrashing. The crowd fell silent as they stood him on the trapdoor; they were all hard eyes and watchful silence.
“Please… this is a mistake,” Alan sobbed, as the official read from a book and the hangman tightened the noose around his neck. He refused to believe this was truly happening to him even when he heard the hangman pull the lever and the plank disappeared from under his feet.
There was a yank, a crack, and then silence.
“Are you alright?”
It was a nondescript girl in modern clothes, regarding him with slight worry in her brown eyes behind the glasses.
Alan let out a shaky breath. He was standing outside the electric store. His gaze was instantly dragged to the sign, but it just listed the actual sales: …every microwave 15% off! Only until the 20th! He looked back at the girl, not sure what to say. He turned away and headed down the street.
Time stretched to hours between every step, to a lifetime between heartbeats, as he neared the curio-shop.
The shop windows were as crammed as he remembered. He crept, rather than walked in. The old man behind the counter smiled. “Oh, there you are. Found anything you liked?”
Alan didn’t trust himself to be able to say anything, so he turned to the back of the store, stealing between the shelves, as if he was approaching a sleeping predator. The owner followed him, his prattle nothing more than background noise in Alan’s ears.
There she was, grinning at him with the same gleeful expression. There wasn’t even a hairline crack on the porcelain.
“You fixed it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I broke it, or one just like this one.” Alan turned to him. “I’m sorry about that. You had another one in stock?”
The owner looked perplexed. “Oh no, there is just this one; there was always just this one. Isn’t she exquisite? Never seen anything like her. It’s like she is alive the way her glance seems to follow you. I got her from somewhere in northern Norway. I can give you a special price for her.”
“Are you sure?” Alan heard despair creeping back into his voice. It took on an unpleasant, whiny note he loathed. The old lady watched him with indifferent brown eyes. “Listen, uh, this might sound odd, but how long have I been in here?”
For an agonizing moment the other just stared at him, probably considering calling the cops.
“You’ve been in the shop for the last five minutes. Are you alright?”
“Yes, I… I just had some kind of blackout, I guess.”
The skin folded into creases around the old man’s eyes as he smiled. “Well, it’s good to have you back.”
Back. He was back. Alan could almost believe it, until he looked at the figurine. She looked back at him as if to say she knew better. They both knew better.
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